Democrats want to gain a foothold with rural voters in 2022 after glimmers of hope

Democrats want to extend their reach to rural voters in the next election cycle, expanding a strategy they say played a crucial role in helping them win several key races in 2022.

Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro (D)’s campaign credits his work appealing to rural voters in part with becoming the first Pennsylvania candidate to win 3 million votes in a midterm election.

“We showed up,” Shapiro told CNN’s State of the Union last week when asked about his strategy for reaching out to rural voters. “We spoke to them about practical things that would improve their lives.”

“We ignored the noise from Washington, DC and instead focused on the good people of Washington County, Pennsylvania,” he continued, referring to a greater Pittsburgh county that also includes rural communities.

The National Democrats also adopted a go-everywhere approach across the country to build a buffer against what was initially forecast to be a tough mid-term cycle for the party.

“The formula, in a lot of places, is show your track record that really makes people tick on kitchen-table issues, put that up against your opponent, and you have to show up,” said Marshall Cohen, political director of the Democratic Governors Association.

To be clear, Democrats still face many of the rural voter headwinds they have faced in the past — and in some areas, those difficulties could increase.

Exit polls by NBC News, last updated Nov. 10, found that 63 percent of voters in small towns and rural areas across the country broke Republicans, while just 34 percent sided with Democrats. CNN exit polls showed Republicans widened their lead among rural voters nationwide from 14 to 29 points between 2018 and 2022.

But Democrats argue that it’s less about winning all rural enclaves and more about taking enough votes from those areas to increase their overall gains.

“Lots of blue dots in red spots add up,” said George Goehl, a Democratic organizer and former director of the national progressive advocacy’s People’s Action Institute. “I think a lot of people are confused on the Democrat side and think, ‘Well, we’re never going to win on the country.’ You don’t have to win rurally. You just have to lose better and I think we saw what that looked like this election cycle.”

In this election cycle, Pennsylvania provided an example of Democrats trying to increase their margins with rural voters. Alongside Shapiro, Pennsylvania Senator-elect John Fetterman (D) has also spent time in rural communities, with his campaign often touting the crowds that were turning up in certain “ruby red” parts of the Commonwealth.

“In Pennsylvania, we were blessed with two candidates who cared about the rural PA,” said Terry Noble, past chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Rural Caucus.

Shapiro’s campaign points to counties, which include rural areas, where Shapiro won in 2022 despite swinging for former President Trump in 2020.

In eastern Pennsylvania, Shapiro won Berks County by 2.9 points this cycle, while Trump won the 2020 county by 8.2 points. Shapiro won Cumberland County in the Harrisburg-Carlisle area earlier this month by 7.6 points, while Trump won it by 10.6 points two years ago. And in Beaver County outside Pittsburgh, Shapiro won by a 2.7-point margin after Trump won the 2020 county by nearly 18 points.

Shapiro notably started his campaign in Johnstown, which is located in GOP-dominated Cambria County and ultimately settled on Republican nominee Doug Mastriano. But Shapiro excelled in areas like Westmoreland County, where he dropped by just 6 points. For comparison, Trump beat President Biden by 28 points in the county.

“These are kind of rural Republican strongholds where Shapiro has not only been able to stop the bleeding, but he’s been able to improve a lot on the Democrats’ performance in the past, and I think that’s a winning formula that a lot of people will emulate,” he said Cohen .

Still, Democrats and Republicans caution against over-interpreting Pennsylvania this cycle. They point out that Shapiro and Fetterman faced candidates many saw as flawed. Mastriano was a prominent election denier, and Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz was a fledgling politician endorsed by Trump in a year when the Trump nominees lost outright.

“I don’t think Josh’s campaign is necessarily designed to gauge what happened in rural PA,” Noble said. “He did well and he did even better than John [Fetterman] made in rural PA no doubt.”

However, Shapiro’s campaign told The Hill that without her tireless efforts to highlight Mastriano’s far-right views and failings, her margins in rural areas would not have been as great.

“We’ve worked very aggressively to get people to understand that,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for Shapiro’s campaign. “Mastriano wasn’t considered so extreme by accident. We put a lot of effort into making that contrast clear.”

Additionally, the campaign made a point of focusing on issues that were once often seen as potential drivers for GOP candidates.

“Whether you’re in Westmoreland County or West Philadelphia, people everywhere are worried about rising costs, they’re worried about safety, and they’re worried about their children’s education,” Bonder said.

The Democrats also say their messages on what Noble calls “core values,” including protecting democracy and access to abortion, have played a crucial role in winning party votes in rural communities.

“As far as I can see, we aimed correctly and communicated correctly,” Noble said.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) currently has a Rural Organizing Chair who works with rural grassroots organizers and state party rural caucuses. Additionally, the DNC made grants as part of its new “Red State Fund,” which launched in 2021 and is working to defend Republicans in a number of red states that include large swathes of rural regions, including Kansas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Utah.

“I think he gets it,” Goehl said, referring to DNC chairman Jaime Harrison. “The first time I met Jaime Harrison was when I was addressing the DNC rural congregation three or four years ago. This was where he wanted to be in a crowded congregation. There he decided to bid his time well ahead of his appointment as chairman.”

But Democrats recognize that the party has fallen short and needs to do more to reach rural voters nationwide.

On Friday, Democratic House candidate Adam Frisch conceded an unexpectedly close race to Conservative Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) in the state’s 3rd congressional district.

While Frisch praised how close his campaign came to impeaching Boebert, his remarks cautioned that Democrats must do more to engage rural voters.

“Democrats have abandoned rural and working-class America in recent years. The Republicans had a monopoly in the backbone of this country. We must not allow this to continue.”

Goehl noted that some rural Democratic parties are still underserved in a number of areas, from keeping headquarters open to obtaining adequate yard signs, but that may be beginning to change.

“I think they’re still pretty tenuous, but I can see they’re headed in the right direction,” Goehl said. “It’s time to step on the gas.”